Monday, December 26, 2016

The cash mess. Changing goalposts, new exemptions raise doubts about the Government's intentions

In the wake of the demonetisation tsunami, our Prime Minister asked for a 50-day grace period. That period ends this week, with no end to the sufferings of people at large. What has in fact become clear is that (a) the Government had not done its homework diligently enough before launching such a mammoth policy shift and (b) it is unsure now how to get out of the mess.

The confusion about how to proceed is reflected in the way goalposts are changed with unsettling frequency. It began with the 4000-rupee cap on exchange of old notes turning, within five days, to 4500 rupees, then to 2000 rupees. Withdrawal caps changed too. An indelible ink exercise lasted a few days. Special allowances for brides and bridegrooms brought heartburns because of the stringent operational rules announced alongside. (Political bigwigs of course had no problem conducting ostentatious weddings costing several hundreds of crores). A climax of sorts was reached last week when the Reserve Bank ruled that banned notes could be deposited only in one 5000-rupee instalment. It reversed the rule within a day, bringing itself and the Government to ridicule.

There was confusion even about the purpose of the new policy. Initially we were told that it was meant to end the menace of black money. Then they said it was intended to fight terrorism. More recently, the refrain is that the intention is to make India a modern cashless society, citizens using their mobile phones for their transactions with ease and speed.

None of these appears credible. The big boys of black money do not keep their hoards in 1000- and 500-rupee notes under their beds in India. Our Government says it knows the names of Indians with bank accounts in foreign safe havens. But there has been no serious effort to inconvenience them. Defanging terrorists was a plausible reason. But modern terrorists are a resourceful lot with sovereign states backing them. In any case, local terrorists can raise their own cash. Ask the gangs who emptied banks in Kashmir at gunpoint. That leaves the patriotic ambitions of turning India into an ultramodern cashless country. Noble idea. And forward-looking. But is this the time for it? And at the cost of such a colossal economic-social shakeup? The fact that India is among the world's poorest and most illiterate nations cannot be wished away. Are we to assume that daily wage earners, small-time farmers and sundry hawkers who don't even know what is a bank will be happy to see the country getting rid of cash, rather than vague things like illiteracy and poverty?

However dressed up, the picture was seriously vitiated on December 16 when the Finance Secretary in Delhi announced that political parties could deposit demonetised notes in their bank accounts without income-tax interference. Social media was outraged by this obvious bid to provide legal protection to corruption. The Election Commission pitched in by asking the Government to amend laws to stop exemption to anonymous contributions to parties and to remove parties that contest no elections from the exemption list.

Not many of us know that there are 1900 political parties registered with the Election Commission. Of these only 400 have bothered to contest any election between 2005 and 2015. The 1500 sleeping parties -- which obviously serve as convenient vehicles for some VIPs -- can accept demonetised notes as contributions from undeclared sources and keep them free of income tax. What a farce! The untenability of it was so patent that the Government quickly came up with a face-saving promise to consider the Election Commission's proposals.

This freshly-revealed tendency to allow political corruption will now have to be linked with the saga of bad debts accumulated by our public sector banks. Of all people, Vijay Mallya showed how wreckless the banks had been. Of the 7000 crore he borrowed from various banks, 1600 crore came from the State Bank of India. They knew King Fisher's financial position, he remarked in a letter. Many banks, he said, advanced loans to many businesses in this manner, their total adding up to Rs 11 trillion (11,000 billion).

Who authorised this extraordinary generosity to doubtful borrowers? And why the sudden rise in the bounty in the last two years? According to published reports, the non-performing assets of public sector banks rose by 4 percent during 2004-12 and by 60 percent during 2013-15. When facts of this kind rise before us, it becomes difficult to believe that demonetisation was a wholly patriotic move.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Dangers of using religion as a political weapon. It's a problem that plagues others as well

"The country yearns for a national leadership that can shore up unity imperilled by burgeoning identity politics. Dangerously, identity politics is the politics of division that undermines the shared awareness that we are one nation. It erodes solidarity and tolerance, the essential spirit we need to keep the country's integrity. It breeds distrust, suspicion and animosity that can easily erupt into conflicts. When it comes to achieving the common wellbeing, people of all stripes -- majority and minority alike -- will have to fall and rise together. Bigots who reduce politics to such identities as ethnicity, race and religion are sowing the seeds of division that can spell doom to the nation..."

Strong words against the politics of polarisation and intolerance. Timely, too, when people are encouraged to turn against people in the name of religion and ethnicity. Who is putting it so bluntly -- and boldly? I had to pinch myself to remember that I was in a foreign land, reading a local newspaper, The Jakarta Post. Nor was the local columnist, Pandaya, writing about India. His concern was his own country. After half a century of multicultural peace, Indonesia is in the thick of sectarian politics similar to India's: Ultras in the majority community are asserting themselves against religious and ethnic minorities.

This is a throwback to the early years of Indonesian independence. Despite the universalism of nationalist leaders like Sukarno and Hatta, political Islam was strong enough to enforce a code under which one had to have a religion to gain citizenship rights and only monotheistic religions were officially recognised. In 1952 the Ministry of Religion declared Bali, the home of an indigenous version of Hinduism, as in need of an Islamic conversion campaign. Bali's local government resisted the move so strongly that constitutional provisions were changed. In 1962 five religions became legal. Today Indonesia recognises Islam (87 percent of the population according to 2010 census), Christianity (just about 10 percent), Hinduism (2 percent), Buddhism (1 percent) and Confucianism (0.05 percent).

As columnist Pandaya reminded his readers, "under dictator Suharto's iron fist, we rarely heard of regional elections marred by debates on the candidate's ethnicity or religion". After Suharto, there has been no iron fist. Current President Joko Widodo is too soft and gentlemanly to have a fist at all. So political Islam is polishing up its steel fist. Its target: Jakarta Governor Ahok Parnama who is standing for re-election.

Ahok is a double minority: Chinese and Christian. He has been charged with an offence unforgivable in Islam: blasphemy. What is interpreted as blasphemy is a statement by Ahok that some people had been deceived [by other people] using al-maidah 51 of the Koran. As his supporters point out, he was not blaming the Koranic verse but those who used it to deceive others.

But his opponents wanted immediate action under blasphemy laws, namely, imprisonment of Ahok and punishment. Violent rallies have been held by Muslim groups under umbrella organisations like the National Movement to Save Indonesia. To diffuse the tension, President Jokowi let the police question Ahok as a suspect. His trial began last week, Ahok pleading his case with testimony by seven witnesses and 14 experts. The Human Rights Watch has asked President Jokowi to change blasphemy and other laws that are being used to persecute religious minorities.

Ironically, Muslims were persecuted by Christian army generals during the Suharto years. Determined to suppress political Islam, religious Muslims were denied promotion and even prevented from using the Islamic greeting Salam Alaikum. Some Generals even insulted the Koran. Suharto, a staunch Muslim, encouraged all that because he saw political Islam as a threat to his authority.

Suharto is gone and political Islam is back with a bang. Ahok's record in public life is immaculate and even his enemies concede that he is a great administrator. He is popular too. But religious sentiments have been aroused to such an extent that it is doubtful whether he will win the gubernatorial election next month. His defeat could cast shadows on the presidentship of Jokowi himself.

Communal sentiments are easy to arouse in Indonesia with political Islam remaining strong despite the Suharto Government's efforts to suppress it. Soon after the brouhaha was kicked up over Ahok's "blasphemy", there were reports of a possible coup which the President's office had to publicly deny. The country is "safe, very safe", said Jokowi. As if to prove it, he travelled to Delhi last week. Was his confidence justified? We will know next month.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Aayirathil Oruval. One in a thousand women, Jaya achieved greatness against tremendous odds

Politics consumed Jayalalithaa so comprehensively that the human side in her remained invisible most of the time. Yet, behind the imperious autocrat the world saw, she was all human, all woman. She yearned for friendships but could not find any that sustained her interest for a reasonable length of time. She yearned for a normal family life but became so disillusioned that she talked about the virtues of not having it. She had everything at her disposal but could not find the enriching relationships she cherished. She was truly lonely.

This was clear from the way she talked, the way she relaxed, even the way she flashed knowing smiles on the rare occasions she felt free to open up. Such occasions were rare because the iniquities she had suffered had made her suspicious of others, especially of politicians and journalists. Criticism had the effect of making her the more obstinate. She herself said once that no one could get anything out of her by threatening her or by being harsh which "only makes me more stubborn, inflexible, unbending, determined". She would cooperate only if someone were "nice to me, pamper me, cajole me, talk to me kindly, softly".

When a television interviewer shot questions at her in his usual lordly manner, she initially tried to go along, then walked off the set saying, as politely as she could, "I must say it wasn't a pleasure talking to you. Namaste". On the other hand, she revealed her inner self with disarming frankness when she appeared in Simi Garewal's Rendezvous series. She even sang a few lines from a popular Hindi film song in response to Simi's prompting. That was one interview she ended with a patently sincere, "It was a pleasure talking to you". It was a pleasure to viewers, too, as the programme was aired more than once in the wake of Jayalalithaa's passing.

In public life hostilities from rivals and competitors either drive people away or harden them into fighters. Women of grit became fighters, the outstanding examples being Indira Gandhi, Imelda Marcos of the Philippines and Eva Peron of Argentina. Each of them vanquished their tormentors and emerged victorious, becoming eccentrically autocratic in the process and yet winning popular applause. The hostilities Jayalalithaa faced were extraordinarily severe; she had been kicked off a gun carriage and physically assaulted inside the legislative assembly. Instead of scaring her away, the threats and humiliations put iron into her soul. Eventually she could recall with pride how hers had been a "tempestuous life" and how she was always "propelled by fate".

Fate was often unkind to her. A girl who stood first in all her school examinations could not go to college because it had become economically necessary to join films. A successful leading lady partnering the legendary MGR beginning with Aayirathil Oruvan (one in a thousand men), she was pushed into politics by him and then left to fend for herself. Like Indira, she could trust only her personal staff and, unlike Indira, she had no children to lean on and groom. Fate turned her into a self-supporting mechanism, making her own rules and declaring, "I don't take any nonsense from anyone". Obedient to her mother and then to MGR, she turned around to make the world obedient to her. And she was detached enough to observe: "I am surprised at the way I have changed".

In her fundamental commitments there were no changes. She kept women's issue on top of her priorities. She launched programmes to give free education to girls, entrepreneurship training to a lakh of women, to provide cradles where families who did not want girls could leave their babies. She launched all-women police stations. She also started the Amma brand of products -- from meals to medicines, salt to cement. She won a niche in the hearts of ordinary people as no leader had done.

Was she happy within? For a person who peppered her speeches with quotations from Tennyson and lesser known American authors, she must have regretted the limitations time imposed on her reading. For one who had a crush, as she said, on cricketer Nari Contractor and actor Shammi Kapoor, she must have felt forlorn when there was no one to admire or love. But she won her battles. When M.Karunanidhi who had persecuted her in humiliating ways found it necessary to say that her fame would live for ever, it was the ultimate recognition of the greatness Jayalalithaa had achieved against all odds.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Demonetisation can only go so far. To go further, politics that backs black money must change

Not enough weeks have passed for us to say that the currency earthquake is over. Aftershocks are more severe than expected, with people waiting in day-long queues, and often failing to withdraw their own money. However, enough time has lapsed for us to look at the overall picture and ask a few basic questions: What is it all about? How did we come to this pass? Will all this lead to the fair and equitable life we deserve?

Only some answers are clear. Basically, this is all about ensuring essential decencies in public life. We came to this pass because Indians like to prosper by cheating other Indians. The unanswerable question is whether all this will clean things up. That is like asking whether the character of the Indian will change.

It can. But it won't if we rely only on currency reform. The Prime Minister's intentions were noble -- the elimination of not only black money but also corruption. But he will be the first to admit that corruption has gone so deep into the vitals of our country that it cannot be eliminated simply by demonetisation.

In developed countries corruption is largely confined to the upper echelons of politics and business. In India bribing is needed for everything from kindergarten admission to selling vegetables by the roadside. Bribing to get wrong things done is understandable. Bribing to get one's basic rights as a citizen is Indian. This kind of corruption has seized India as a direct result of politics.

The political class and illicit money have always travelled together in India because, the way Indian democracy developed, politicians found it essential to amass immense quantities of cash to acquire power and then to hold on to it. Neither black money nor bribery nor mafia influence nor the killing of our cities, mountains and rivers can be stopped as long as the need for big money is essential for the survival of the political class as presently constituted. And, in all fairness, that need cannot be reduced as long as elections in India remain an insatiably fund-guzzling exercise.

In the 2014 elections parties formally reported a total spend of Rs 2000 crore (BJP -714 crore, Congress - 516 crore). An independent research group said the total spend was nearer Rs 30,000 crore. Where do such moneys come from?

In a wellknown 2013 study, Trilochan Sastry (IIM, Bangalore) found that 30 percent of elected MPs and MLAs had criminal cases against them. Crime and money, the report said, played an important role in winning elections. It also showed how easy it was to buy votes. Today, buying of votes has become open and widespread, often ruling governments and ministers taking the lead. When the need exists for buying votes, holding massive rallies, gathering crowds with incentives ranging from biriyani to cash, feeding and sustaining tens of thousands of cadres for year-round field work, how can the "deep immorality at the heart of our democracy" be eliminated by mere demonetisation? As the New York Times editorialised: "The government has begun circulating new 500- and 2000-rupee notes, which means that cash-based corruption... is almost sure to return". (That's already happening. A PWD officer in Bengaluru was caught last week with a hoard of Rs 4.7 crore in fresh 2000-rupee notes. Fake 2000s are already in circulation).

Our leaders have been talking about "cashless society" and using "your mobile phone as your bank". India has more people living below the poverty line than Bangladesh and Pakistan. It will take time for them to supercede cash. To eliminate corruption in the meantime, the character of the political class, the ability of criminals to become legislators will have to be addressed. Strong laws can keep criminals out. Electoral systems other than the first-past-the-post idea bequeathed by Britain can be considered; there are choices ranging from Europe's proportional representation system to Japan's multi-member constituencies. This is the way to real reform -- not getting rid of some old currency notes and introducing new ones.

But that kind of reform demands uncommon courage, even audacity. For the politician is no ordinary animal. Statesman-scholar-orator Cicero explained how:

The poor work and work
The rich exploit the poor
The soldier protects both
The tax-payer pays for all three
The wanderer rests for all four
The drunk drinks for all five
The banker robs all six
The lawyer misleads all seven
The doctor kills all eight
The undertaker buries all nine
The politician lives happily
On the account of all ten.

Monday, November 28, 2016

A non-conformist, original 'Krishna with the flute' who made the singer larger than the song

What made Balamuralikrishna different - so different that his demise, which cannot be considered untimely at the age of 85, has created a rare sense of loss not just among classical music afficianados but a wider public in northern as well as southern India? Part of the reason must be his entanglement with the orthodoxies of the Carnatic Establishment where the slightest departure from the beaten track is frowned upon. A generation earlier the great G.N.Balasubramanian had to face displeasure from the sanctorum because he had got himself a B.A.Hons degree, something true maestros considered unnecessary if not undesirable. But GNB's sustained virtuosity didn't take long to bring the barriers down.

Balamurali turned musician around age 10, so he had no time to go to college (which made his facility with spoken English all the more impressive). But he happily flaunted "Dr" before his name. He too earned disapproval from the Establishment because he dared to compose his own songs and work out his own ragas using only three notes instead of the five considered the absolute minimum. He evolved into a daring experimenter, innovator, iconoclast, rebel. To make things worse, he was a Telugu trained under Telugu gurus. The Establishment, although unstinting in its veneration of Tyagaraja, had in effect developed a Mylapore gravitas so much so that it had initially looked suspiciously even at Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar because he was a hybrid from Palghat.

It stands to the credit of the Establishment, however, that it always bowed to the call of greatness. Traditionalist biases were set aside fairly quickly when women singers of superior talent came up, when university-educated singers proved their worth and when Balamuralikrishna, defiant as he was, proved worthy of his name - Krishna with a flute. To him Carnatic music appeared to be a springboard to help him soar into his own realm of exploration. This antagonised some purists, but it also attracted listeners not brought up in the Carnatic milieu. Critics found his style of rendering classical ragas unclassically mundane; they accused him of indulging in vocal fireworks rather than pursuing musical fidelity. Actually the so-called fireworks were part of the Balamurali essence, integral to the originality that branded his music.

Lifting that music to magical heights was his voice, the unmistakable deep-pitched voice that had attracted public attention when he was not even 10 years old. The vocal boom stayed with him all through life, despite his refusal to do anything special to protect it. (Singers are known to go to great lengths to see that their throats are not exposed to potential harm. A Carnatic mridangam artist went to the extent of not wringing his bath towels so that his precious fingers would be spared unnecessary strain. Balamurali broke all the rules. Icecream was among his favourite sweets). A reverberating wonder of manliness, the Balamurali voice would climb peaks and, the next moment, plunge into the meandering softness of controlled emotion.

No classical musician gave the impression as convincingly and as consistently as Murali Garu did of enjoying what he was doing on the concert stage. He conveyed a buoyancy, a gladness of spirit that proclaimed his joy as he sang. The pleasure quotient was high in his performance and the extent to which he could convey it to his audience was something of a wonder. He had also acquired amazing levels of breath control. He would stretch one single swara interminably (in the composition Sundari nee divya, for example) as if musical artistry was above physical boundaries. For those who want to see two musicians enjoying themselves, there is nothing to equal the jugalbandhis between Balamurali and Pandit Bhimsen Joshi. The best of these performances are not just for listening; they must be seen as well as heard if only to witness the abandon with which Bhimsen Joshi swings his hands and his head and his body in ecstasy as the two masters match each other. The pleasure they so obviously experience passes to their listeners -- and viewers -- overwhelmingly until eyes fill up with tears of joy.

In the end music, like all arts, is meant to give pleasure. Balamuralikrishna derived more pleasure from his muse than any artist of his generation. He loved the good things of life. More importantly, he loved them without inhibitions and without socially correct pretensions. He never suffered from false modesty or from superior airs. He was simple, honourable, open. He died in his sleep. A good ending for a good man.

Monday, November 21, 2016

How far can religion/caste calculations take us? It's sad that secularism is now a bad word

There is a relentlessness about the way caste and religion are taking over India. The traditional notion of lower and upper castes was shattered when Gujarat's well-to-do Patels unleashed an agitation for reservation. Then it turned out there were Patels and Patels -- Leuva Patels and Kalava Patels, happy OBCs, Kachia Patels and Anjana Patels, wannabe OBCs, and Muslim Patels (converted Patidars). Muslims in Gujarat have more "sub-castes" than their counterparts in the rest of India: Dawoodis, Ismailis, Khojas, Memons, Bohras, Lohanas.

Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah's favourite political philosophy is anchored on the Ahinda theory -- a union of minorities, backward castes and Dalits who, according to a controversial caste census, outnumber the mighty Lingayats and Vokkaligas put together. There are of course Hosadevaru Vokkaligas, Gangadikara Vokkaligas, Morasu Vokkaligas, Namadhari Vokkaligas, Kunchitiga Vokkaligas and so on besides 42 types of Lingayats, irresistible votebank ground.

This kind of arithmetic assumed almost vulgar proportions in UP-Bihar. Dalit messiah Kanshi Ram left nothing to the imagination when he coined slogans like "Beat Brahmins, Banyas and Thakurs with shoes" and "vote hamara, raj thumara, nahi chalega". Mayawati who assumed power with the help of such slogans wrote new chapters in political cynicism. She tied up with the BJP at one point, destroying the Kanshi Ram legacy, then promoted new votebank concepts like Dalit-Muslim formula and later Dalit-Muslim-Brahmin formula.

All this in a country that was singed by a religion-based partition. Pakistan declared itself an Islamic state and became increasingly fundamentalist as the years passed. India's first generation leaders tried to avoid that path and built a constitutional base for a state where all religions would be equal. That seemed a practical approach in a country left with a large minority of Muslims and a highly splintered majority (Not only were communities like Sikhs and Dalit segments not Hindu; some Lingayat communities campaigned to be considered non-Hindu).

Secularism worked magic in Europe by ending the church's role in governance. The church was an armed entity that fought battles like the Thirty Year War (1618-1648). It was at the end of that war that the word "secularisation" was first used, meaning the transfer of church properties to governments. It thus came to denote something good and progressive in a country.

India's has been a different experience, so different that the notable historian T.N.Madan said pointblank: "In the prevailing circumstances, secularism in South Asia as a generally shared credo of life is impossible, as a basis for state action impracticable, and as a blueprint for the foreseeable future impotent". This was in mid 1980s, well before the Narendra Modi phenomenon and the rise of the BJP as a political powerhouse. So why was he so certain? Secularism was impossible as a credo, he said, "because the great majority of people in South Asia are in their own eyes active adherents of some religious faith". State action based on it was impractical because, among other things, it was difficult for the state to maintain religious neutrality "since religious minorities do not share the majority's view of what this entails for the state". And it was impotent for future planning because "by its very nature, it is incapable of countering religious fundamentalism and fanaticism".

When Madan made those prescient observations, he could not have imagined that religious fanaticism would become as strong as they are today. Babri Masjid was still standing and it wasn't clear that the Congress would decline to the point of leaving the BJP virtually opposition-less in the polling booths.

In a country where a great majority "are in their own eyes active adherents of some religious faith", the dangers inherent in religious fanaticism are obvious. Early warnings have already been sounded in India with lynchings and bombings and competitive murders by people who feel righteous about their actions. In vain did our early leaders counsel caution. Gandhi declared all religions as true because they gave meaning to the moral life. Nehru became the leading advocate of secularism in his age. Even Jinnah, never a practising Muslim, was secularist. Within days of Pakistan's birth, he told his people: "Bury the hatchet."

What we see today is not a pretty picture. Religion may not be influencing statecraft in Europe and countries like China. But it has become the deciding factor in political actions in India. In his learned analysis of the issue, T.N.Madan asked, "Is everything lost irretrievably?" and replied ominously: "I really have no solutions to suggest".

We need to ask again: Is everything lost irretrievably?

Monday, November 14, 2016

As jaw-droppers and nerve-wrackers hit the people, will Rupee finally win? Will Trump triumph?

So America got a jaw-dropping shock. India got two -- the jaw-dropping one plus the nerve-wracking rupee maha-shock. The impact of the former will take a few months to unravel. The impact of the latter was instant like an electric shock. Much of the panic it caused was unavoidable because demonetisation with a view to unearthing black money needs to be planned secretly and announced suddenly. In the event, the secrecy and the suddenness were both admirable. The boldest government initiative in recent decades, it directly targetted corruption and fake currency as well as the black economy. It is a master stroke that deserves to succeed.

In the nature of things, the announcement also disrupted life across the country. The sudden denial of everyday cash for everyday essentials dealt a raw deal to the poor, the old, the petty traders, the daily wage earners and the many who are too backward to know what bank accounts mean. It hit the urban middleclass, too, as was evident in banks, petrol bunks and railway ticket counters where chaos reigned. Closer attention by the planners could have saved ordinary people from much of the trouble.

Actually, ordinary people rose to the occasion in spite of the problems they faced. From across the country there were reports of citizens saying that they would put up with short-term inconveniences in the interests of the country. Television channels broadcast pictures of people lining up at petrol stations and in front of petty shops, saying how vexing was their experience and how they would bear with it since the abolition of black money was in their interest.

Will worthy intentions lead to worthy results? High-value rupee notes were demonetised in 1946 and again in 1978. On both occasions, the intention was to wipe out the black market. Obviously both attempts failed. In recent years the parallel economy had grown to 23.2 percent of the GDP according to World Bank estimates. That would translate to about US $ 479 billion. The Government itself will have to admit that black money could not have grown that big without the active support of politicians in power.

Besides, let us not underestimate the genius of Indians to circumvent laws. Politics, crony capitalism and entrepreneurship have grown in India on one simple principle: Where there is a law, there is a loophole. How Indian ingenuity flowers in the days ahead will be of interest to sociologists as well as to income tax collectors. Every citizen will wish the Government success because the Government's success against black money will be the people's success. Meanwhile, former Chief Election Commissioner S.Y.Quraishi drew attention to the obvious when he said the currency reform would have "a big impact on upcoming elections". In UP, for example, the Samajwadis and the Mayawatis will have no money to fight the elections. The BJP's victory is assured.

The rupee drama will be as transformative for India as Donald Trump's triumph has been for the United States. It wasn't a narrow victory for the man who ran a crude campaign. The support he received from voters must have astonished him too. The acceptance speech, however, was delivered by a new, born-again Trump -- gracious and conciliatory. But the hatreds and resentments had gone so deep that an unprecedented "He's not my President" movement has already started. A divisive America may be a fact of life for the immediate future.

In policy approaches, Trump is unlikely to be as abrasive as he sounded during the campaigning. While his campaign rhetoric will no doubt be softened by the realities of power and the constrictions imposed by America's political-administrative establishment, the basic tenets of the Trump philosophy are unlikely to change. His primary article of faith will be "America first". He will hold on to his view that allies must pay more for the US troops stationed in their region. He is also unlikely to give up on his stated opposition to the multi-nation pan-Pacific trade pact that was the thrust of Barack Obama's pivot to Asia policy. The military alliance with South Korea may survive.

Meanwhile, it is of interest to note that the six Indian-origin Americans who have got elected to the US Congress are all members of the Democratic Party despite the fund-raising celebrations conducted by the Republican Hindu Coalition. But the Coalition is far from discouraged. The Hindu Sena in Delhi distributed sweets when Trump won. A sizeable number of Indians seem convinced that Donald Trump is a BJP member.

Monday, November 7, 2016

If Trump wins, it means trouble. If Hillary wins, it means another kind of trouble. Some choice!

The world will go through a gear-shift this week. America is not just another country. As the world's biggest economy and military power, it cannot catch a cold without making others sneeze. Besides, it follows a presidential system that concentrates colossal power in one individual, power that is not always used wisely. A perverse war started by a lying President in 2003 unleashed murderous forces such as the ISIS that threaten the whole world today. Any US presidential election is therefore a matter of concern to all humanity.

More so this time. The election campaign this time has been the foulest, the dirtiest and the most hate-driven in living memory. The damage done is such that the choice before the electorate is not really a choice. It is like selecting between a bull in a chinashop and a freeloader in a supermarket. When a country is forced to decide between two evils, the country loses. When the country is America, the world loses.

Ominous things have already happened, casting shadows across America. The most significant of these is the polarisation of people into those who tolerate others and those who don't (a polarisation the ramifications of which are already visible to us in India). The tolerant want what they consider American values to continue undisturbed. The intolerant see in Trump a change maker who will bring America back to what it was, and what it ought to be -- the homeland of White Protestants.

The intensity of anti-Trump passions was clear in the words of veteran thespian Robert De Niro. He appeared on TV, facial muscles taut, described Trump as "a national disaster", called him "a punk, dog, pig and mutt" and said, "I am so angry that this fool has got to this point". The anger had little effect. Last-minute opinion polls showed Trump having an edge over his opponent.

If the opponent had been less controversial, perhaps the situation might have been less scary. What a seachange for the Democrats from ten years ago when Barak Obama electrified the scene with his inspirational aura. The Democratic Party did not cover itself with glory by picking a flag-bearer whose capabilities are as disputed as her integrity. A great many people are likely to vote for Trump just to show their dislike of Hillary. The number may not be less than those who vote for Hillary just to record their contempt for Trump.

One of the frustrations of this election is that whoever wins, there will be trouble. Half the divided population will not mentally accept the authority of the winner. It could be worse if Trump were to be the loser. Remember that he was blunt when asked whether he would accept a verdict against him. What did he mean when he said he would decide that after the results were known? That position bristled with both defiance of the American Constitution and a threat of action outside the scope of law.

If Trump were to be the winner, a whole range of other problems could descend upon America and the world. He could turn America's alliances with other countries upside down, launch protectionist policies, promote racism and be unabashedly autocratic. Power understands power and he may build friendships with Russia and China, but beyond that he could be dangerous.

That may precisely be what a large chunk of Americans are looking for. The yearning for a change from status-quoism where the wrong types get privileges has seen rightwing forces rising in many societies. In America, too, ultra-nationalism has become a dominant sentiment. Resenting the incessant flow of immigrants, the White Protestant masses would like to erase the inscription on the Statue of Liberty which says, "Give me your tired, your poor, the huddled masses, the wretched refuse... send these, the homeless, to me". Not when Ronald Trump is holding the lamp. That is why there is so much mass support for Trump. There should be no surprise if, God forbid, he wins.

The comic relief in this otherwise grim drama was provided by a band of trumpeteers who called themselves the Republican Hindu Coalition in the US. Traditionally most Indians in the US support the Democrats. The Hindu Coalition marked a departure with a boisterous reception for Trump. Their hero rose to the occasion and declared: "I am a big fan of Hindu," immortal words that went viral. We can now rest assured that a Trump White House, whatever havoc it causes elsewhere, will be good for Hindu.

Monday, October 31, 2016

When violence, hatred and conflicts surround us, quotable quotes give us comfort and hope

These are troubled times. Conflicts beset our lives and everyone is at war with everyone. One way -- perhaps the only way -- to snatch a modicum of sanity amid the malevolence is to seek out the soothing words of the wise who went before us, the
great men who made our lives sublime/and left footprints on the sands of time.

The need to do so is increasing by the day. Wherever we turn, we see people hating people, violence derailing life, religion fighting religion. An hour with the newspapers in the morning leaves us depressed. A half-hour with the news channels in the evening leaves us distressed; can "debates" among seemingly educated citizens be so disruptive, anchoring so maniacal? If we turn to the internet for relief, we see a scary world of unsupervised abuse from free-floating antibodies. Where has the world of decencies gone?

The words of wisdom passed on by past generations do not always cheer us up. Some merely help us cope by explaining the mess we are in. Thus the texts on Kaliyuga tell us that we are living in times when "barbarians will rise as kings, humans with animal nature will multiply, Brahmins will sell the vedas, sages will become traders and rains will not come in season." What a perfect description of our lives?

The need for words of comfort explains the popularity of A.P.J.Abdul Kalam's books and the perennial appeal of the Tamil classic Thirukkural with its moral aphorisms: "The compassionate who care for other lives do not fear for their own lives".

Collections of quotations remain evergreen because of their wit and wisdom.Winston Churchill, himself a master of quotable quotes ("Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few", or, "This is the sort of English up with which I will not put") did not hesitate to recommend the reading of quotations. When engraved upon the memory, he said, "they give you good thoughts".

Dictionaries of quotations are a staple of the English language. But they are Western in their orientation. Thus the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations has 38 pages of quotations from the Bible and not even a stray one from the Gita or the Upanishads. To the dictionary reader, therefore, the unrivalled gems of the Bhagwat Gita are unavailable. And only Upanishad scholars will come upon beautiful thoughts such as, "This earth is the honey of all beings, and all beings are the honey of this earth" (Brihadaranyaka).

Thankfully, those seeking refuge from surrounding hostilities have enough in the English world to comfort them. Dostoyevsky does it with lofty insights: "Lying to ourselves is more deeply ingrained than lying to others". Charles Dickens delights us with his rustic wisdom: "Never do tomorrow what you can do today. Procrastination is the thief of time". Or, "we forge the chains we wear in life".

Sheer nastiness can also give pleasure by being bright with wit. See what Cyril Connolly said of George Orwell: "He cannot blow his nose without moralising on conditions in the handkerchief industry". Orwell himself said: "The worst advertisement for the Christian religion is its adherents". H.L.Mencken was a master of this art. "Love", he said, "is the delusion that one woman differs from another". Among his endless wisecracks was: "A good politician is as unthinkable as an honest burglar".

One of the most popular quotation providers was Oscar Wilde. Poet, playwright, novelist and bohemian, his imagination was unrivalled when it came to expressing outrageous ideas in enchanting phrases. "Work is the curse of the drinking classes", he said. And, "It is better to be beautiful than to be good. But it is better to be good than to be ugly". He cautioned us: "A man cannot be too careful in the choice of his enemies". And also: "All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That is his". He defined a cynic as "A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing". And he reminded us: "There is no sin except stupidity". And that "The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it".

In the end, it is the noble-minded who win the day. In these troubled times, the simple words with which a simple man outlined a simple philosophy come through as the best quote. Said tennis star Roger Federer's father Robert: "Cry when you win, cry when you lose -- that's sport. Just don't cheat".

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Congress, bent on suicide, lost Kerala first. Now it's losing Karnataka for a flyover

The relentless build-up of the Congress party's death wish is an astonishing phenomenon to watch. There isn't the slightest sign of recognising the cancer that is destroying it from within -- absolute control by a dynastic family that no longer commands respect, not even from large chunks of Congressmen. The party that could once get a lamp post elected on its ticket has power today in just eight states, seven of them too minor to count on the national stage. Karnataka is the only major state the Congress controls -- and Congress leaders in the state are doing everything possible to ensure defeat in the next election.

The so-called High Command has lost its omnipotence as Kerala's last chief minister, Oommen Chandy, proved by defying it. With several of his ministers neck-deep in corruption, he rejected the High Command's suggestions aimed at saving the situation. Pressed to drop at least one minister, Chandy threatened to boycott the election whereupon the High Command humbly retreated. In the event, Chandy led the Congress to its most humiliating defeat in history. Unless he and his generation retire and a line of young leaders take over, the Congress will lose again in Kerala -- provided of course that the present Communist-led alliance does not help the Congress by committing serious blunders.

The suicidal streak in the Karnataka Congress is just as strong. The latest subterfuge that has alienated the Government from the people involves plans for a steel flyover in a city that has been turned into a traffic nightmare by a succession of greedy politician planners. The initial plans saw the flyover ending at the Hebbal intersection, a notorious mess. When it was pointed out that the bigger bottleneck was just after the Hebbal junction, the flyover blueprint was hastily extended to include that hell-spot as well. A classic case of ad-hocism and non-application of mind.

The steel flyover idea has triggered widespread public opposition because of its obvious unsoundness. A central segment of Bangalore, the Chalukya Circle, will be reduced to a mess of underpasses and crisscrossing steel overbridges. Several hundred trees will be cut while the Golf Club and heritage structures will be broken up. On top of it all, the Government has been secretive about the details. No cost breakdown is provided, information under RTI is denied. There will be a toll gate, making Bangalore the only city where a resident will have to pay two tolls to reach the airport. The whole scheme is bad economically, bad politically, bad aesthetically and bad ethically. The only sensible thing that can be done with it is to scrap it altogether.

Bangaloreans saw this and turned out in their thousands to form a human chain of protest one Sunday. Any Government claiming to represent the people would at least have shown a semblance of courtesy before public opinion so dramatically expressed. But Chief Minister Siddaramaiah reflected Congress haughtiness when he told the protesting public, the very next day, that the steel flyover plan would proceed as planned.

Why such open adamance? Two explanations gained currency. First, that Karnataka's Congressmen do not expect to be elected next time around and are therefore in a hurry to make hay while the sun shines. Secondly, for the Congress and the High Command, Karnataka is the one and only ATM available and elections are imminent in UP and Punjab.

The political class being what it is, both explanations are convincing. Besides, the High Command cannot afford to be all that high these days. The dynastic hold is proving counter-productive at every turn. In UP, where it had no chance anyway, it has received a body blow with the defection of Rita Bahuguna, considered close to Sonia Gandhi and her son.

The only state where the future holds some sort of hope for the party is Rajasthan. If the High Command tries to find out why, it will see that the leadership of the party in the state has gone to Sachin Pilot, a younger leader who has vision and competence. The elders are sulking. C.P.Joshi, reputed to be a confidant of Rahul Gandhi, skipped a dinner organised by ex-Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot. The two together skipped Rahul's rally in Delhi on Oct 6.

If all the elders go into a similar sullen withdrawal in all other states too and the young and the able take over the party's reins, the Congress may see another sunrise. But that won't happen. Why? Ask the unseeing, immovable, infallible Family.

Monday, October 17, 2016

PM said no chest-thumping, but election planners ignore that sound advice. It's not a good omen

In just a couple of weeks, "surgical strike" has become a magical phrase in India. It radiates with patriotism and national pride so much so that Hindi media uses it untranslated. The phrase of course has nothing to do with surgery or hospitals or doctors; surgeons don't "strike" at patients. The way things are going, probably it has nothing to do with generals and jawans either. It has become so politicised that it now denotes political action politically conceived for political exploitation.

Prime Minister Modi was the first leader to recognise the negative nature of the politics that developed around India's military operation against Pakistani terrorist bases on September 28. As a propaganda war raged over the operation, the atmosphere was vitiated by allegations and counter-allegations unbecoming of a mature nation. What's more, it detracted from the valour of the armed forces. Recognising the unhealthy nature of this pow-wow, Narendra Modi told his people to avoid "chest-thumping" over the military strike. That was sound advice.

Strategically and diplomatically, too, it was wise not to go boasting. Having gained the immediate objectives of the strike, public bragging can achieve nothing militarily while it can generate vengefulness in the enemy. A humiliated enemy will focus on retaliatory action, especially when it has the advantage of non-state actors at its beck and call.

Modi was careful enough to follow his own advice during his much-awaited speech at the Dussehra function in Lucknow. He said Ravana was "the first terrorist" of the world, but did not go beyond that. He did not dwell much on the strike against Pakistan and, more significantly, did not accuse previous governments of not carrying out operations of a similar nature against targets in Pakistan.

But once again the more enthusiastic BJP ideologues have chosen to ignore Modi's advice. (On an earlier occasion, when he had condemned cow vigilantes as anti-social, the vigilantes had the gumption to turn around and condemn him. On Dussehra day, RSS chief Bhagwat chose in effect to chastise Modi by saying that cow protectors should not be mistaken for vigilantes). This time the momentum of politics, accelerated by the approaching elections in Uttar Pradesh, seems to have propelled ideologues towards rejecting the prime ministerial guideline.

Home Minister Rajnath Singh himself looked like he was carried away by the enthusiasm of the Ramleela crowd at Lucknow. In an obvious reference to the "surgical strike", he said the "Prime Minister has proved to the world that India is not weak". Defence Minister Parrikar went completely political. Earlier strikes during the UPA regime, he said, were border skirmishes carried out by local teams; only the latest action merited to be called surgical strike. He said the big credit for the decision went to the Prime Minister.

In a few sentences in his Mumbai speech, he turned the Prime Minister's advice on its head, gave the armed forces a minor role and sharpened the enemy's enmity to a point that cannot do us any good. He did a double chest-thumping -- how his government took action previous governments did not, and how the latest action has damaged the enemy's psyche. His words bristled with bravado: "Pakistan was given opportunities to build relations. But the response was not forthcoming. It turned into a predictable pattern which has been broken by the surgical strikes".

We can imagine how these words would be seen in Pakistan. There will now be no scope for talks of any kind unless the Prime Minister goes out of his way to undo the damage. Sections of the electorate in India will of course feel an adoloscent thrill. BJP leaders have announced that the surgical strike and the uniform civil code will be the main weapons in the UP election campaign. Is that what it all boils down to? Our jawans risk their lives fighting terrorists only to help a political party win a few votes? Can short-term political calculations override long-term national interests?

Modi's position against propagandising the strike against terrorists in Pakistan must have been a carefully considered one. He must have realised that war with Pakistan was not an option. Only negotiations against a background of international collaboration of a meaningful nature -- on economic and trade programmes for example -- can show a way forward. This becomes all the more obvious with the increasing involvement of Iran, Russia and China as well as the US in the area. If domestic politics determines external relations, India will lose more than it gains.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Artists do not die because the world needs art; Arakkal gave us pleasure by painting pain

It is not for nothing that every Rajnikant movie is released with uproarious publicity brouhaha, from milk abhishekam of oversize portraits to trailers exploding with the hero's superman feats. Marketing is everything. For film folk, it is the magic line between life and death. But the principle behind it applies to writers, artists and musicians as well.

M.F.Husain became India's most famous artist by being in the news always. He was of course one of our best. But so was Souza, so was Tyeb Mehta, so were Hebbar and Ara and Manjit Bawa. But none of them plunged headlong into controversy as Husain did with, for example, his portrait of Indira Gandhi, during the Emergency days, as a tiger-riding Durga. Then the Hindutva brigade did him a favour by vandalising some of his works and forcing him into exile, thereby making him even more celebrated.

Yusuf Arakkal was of the opposite kind -- quiet, gentle and undemanding despite holding strong views. He was aware of the importance of pushing your way forward. His preferred term was performer. Like Picasso, he said, artists have to be performers. He wasn't one because it was not in him. Belonging to what may be called the post-Husain generation (or, should it be the post-Bombay Group phenomenon?), Arakkal ploughed his own furrow. He produced no genre of his own. His work focussed on the evocative faces of ordinary people, on themes such as loneliness and gloom. He was unabashed in his admiration for his heroes -- the masters of European art ("the greats," as he called them) and the genius novelist of his native Kerala, Vaikam Muhammed Bashir; a typical Arakkal series is devoted to Bashir characters.

The dramatic mass of Tyeb Mehta's colourations, the majestic contrasts of Husain's blacks and whites, the violent liveliness of Souza's distortions, even the elegiac eloquence of Amrita Shergill -- no, Yusuf Arakkal would have none of these. He would choose colours and contours that brought out the desolation of city life, the darkness of marginality, the anguish of human struggles. Arakkal had experienced poverty and loneliness and dejection when he roamed the streets of Bangalore looking for a living. Only after he got a welding job in HAL (Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd) could he think of doing an art course in the Chitrakala Parishad and gaining experience as a print-maker in a Delhi studio.

Arakkal's choice of Bangalore must have been by happenstance. It was a pensioners' paradise, while the artists' paradise was Bombay. Transformation began in 1970 when Gurudas Shenoy took the initiative in organising "Karnataka Painters". Arakkal was in the original team along with S.G.Vasudev, Balan Nambiar, Milind Naik and others. K.K.Hebbar as chairman of the Lalit Kala Akademi gave a boost to their efforts. Today Bangalore is a thriving centre of modern art, so thriving that galleries have come up in impressive numbers, obviously making good profit out of art shows, art sales and related art business.

Although one of the pioneers of the art movement in Bangalore and always in the front row, Arakkal seldom played the activist's role. Vasudev, for example, floated Artpark, a voluntary movement that enabled interested people to collect in a public park one Sunday a month and exchange ideas with established masters. He also started Ananya Drishya to expose school children to art. Balan Nambiar ran an informal art school in his flat for years, giving children tuition in drawing and colour mixing.

Arakkal did give time and attention to young aspirants. But he was happiest when he could bury himself in painting portraits, in depicting scenes that expressed his inner conflicts, his hopes, his pain; the artist succeeds when his pain translates into the cognoscenti's pleasure. Like Balan Nambiar, he ventured into media other than paint, stainless steel for example; his early days as a mechanic in HAL must have come in handy. But he did not diversify as Vasudev did with art direction in movies at one end and tapestry art at another.

In the end, though, he surprised everyone by jumping the queue of life and departing ahead of his colleagues when he had just crossed the 70th marker. But this is one case where Death will not win. Yusuf Arakkal will mock it from galleries across the country and beyond. And he will be there to greet every arriving passenger at Bangalore International Airport with his mural, The Flight, a masterpiece in glittering steel, shaped and angled to take off any moment. Death, where's they sting?

Monday, October 3, 2016

A new America faces a new cultural revolution; Trump reflects world's shift to intolerance

Frankly speaking, the choice before American voters in this presidential election is depressing to say the least. Neither candidate has the ennobling, inspirational dimension that made Barack Obama's entry splendorous, and John Kennedy's before him. The Clinton name is, to put it mildly, controversial; if Bill earned the nickname "Slick Willie," the commonly used adjectives for Hillary are "mean" and "phony" and "programmed". Donald Trump of course is the complete outsider trying to become the insider. His crude style is matched only by his reputation for real estate business tricks and his white-racist image. That this is all that the United States has on offer is an indication perhaps that the American Century is finally reaching its sunset stage.

It would be a mistake, though, to miss the historical importance of Trump's emergence as a political phenomenon. The world was astonished that a property tycoon with zero political experience could become the Republican Party's presidential candidate. Republicans themselves were astonished -- and many of them ashamed. The establishment wing of the party tried to stop Trump. They finally reconciled themselves to his candidacy when the threat of dire consequences to their opposition combined with the surprising groundswell in favour of Trump.

That groundswell has been attributed to various factors, ranging from the rise of a new middleclass in America with new grievances/aspirations, to a worldwide shift towards rightwing dogmatism and attendant intolerance. Before these new developments the system was "orderly". Both conservatives such as Ronald Reagan and liberals such as John Kennedy could count upon a citizenry that was generally satisfied with their lives. The middleclass outnumbered the upper and lower classes combined and the economy was healthy enough to ensure a reasonable level of prosperity. America's status as a world power and a refuge of the oppressed came as a bonus.

Perceptions are different now. A Pew research study (December 2015) showed that the middleclass was no longer the majority in America. Its share in income had also gone down steadily during the past four-plus years. Simultaneously, no doubt urged by loss of jobs and the general fall in economic standards, the middleclass also started losing faith in the entrenched political system manned by scheming politicians, lobbyists, financiers and big-business cartels.

The moment was right for the middleclass to reject popular shibboleths about America's role in the world and start asking about America's responsibility to Americans. Trump was made for such a moment. The issues he raised resonated with growing numbers of disgruntled Americans. Why spend Americans' money on foreign aid? Why allow outsiders come and take jobs away from Americans? Why spend so heavily on military operations abroad when the result is ISIS?

When Trump raised such questions with his trademark flamboyance and loudness, the multitudes gravitated to him. His war cry, "Make America Great Again", was just what they wanted to hear. When he attacked Hispanics, Blacks, and alien entities like "the Chinese", white Americans were thrilled. His comments on immigrants and minorities and women were ultraconservative, retrograde and belligerent, but they were music to the ears of an enlarged audience of Americans disgusted with the conditions imposed on them by the politicians-business establishment. Trump saw his popularity rising.

But many Americans also found him vulgar, foul and opposed to the standards of decency they considered not only important but also American. The New York Times and the Washington Post led the powerful media segment that "endorsed" Hillary Clinton and published strongly-worded denunciations of the values Trump propagated. What has emerged is a divided America -- divided, not between liberals and conservatives as has been the case till now, but between liberals and nationalists of the dogmatic kind.

America may simply be reflecting a trend that has been evolving around the world. Sluggish economy and the convulsions created by the refugee influx from war-torn Syria have seen ultra-right parties gaining ground across Europe. The anti-immigrant, anti-European Union, protectionist National Front in France, the far-right Alternative for Germany party, the anti-immigrant Freedom Party in Austria, Hungarian, Polish rightwingers are all beneficiaries of the world's swing to illiberal doctrines.

That is why the Hillary-Trump fight will be a historically significant event and its eventual consequences unpredictable. The first TV debate between them saw Hillary winning comfortably. But it will be foolish to ignore the fact that Trump has risen this high despite being a "tax-evader" as Hillary charged, and despite calling women "slogs" and "dogs" and "pigs". America faces a cultural revolution and a political convulsion at once.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Pakistan poses problems too serious to be left to jingoist TV anchors and Sangh Parivar hawks

Patriotic quibbling will not hide the basic fact -- that Pakistan has boxed India into a tight corner. As happened in the wake of the Mumbai terror attack eight years ago, every muscle in our body politic twitches to take revenge against the rogue state. But a whole bunch of reality checks hold us back. Fortunately, the Prime Minister recognised this and resisted hawkish pressure from his own party parivar. That prevented the tight corner from developing into a trap.

By now diplomatic, political, strategic and security specialists have weighed the options open to India and unanimously rejected military retaliation. Many have openly admitted that India, despite having one of the finest fighting forces in the world, has not kept pace with modernisation and resources-building. We do not have the sophisticated paraphernalia to stage, for example, the kind of operation that enabled American SEALS to dive deep into Pakistan and get Osama bin Laden.

The idea of isolating Pakistan cannot go far either. The frenzied shoutings of our television anchors might give the impression that world powers have taken positions in support of India. What world powers have done is to condemn terrorism and sympathise with its Indian victims. Not one of them has mentioned Pakistan as being responsible for the attack.

Russia's statement is, as diplomatic statements go, the most sympathetic to India. But let us not forget that, following India's policy shift away from Moscow in recent years, Russia has signed various treaties with Pakistan. According to one of these, 24 of Russia's deadly SU-35 fighter jets will be delivered to Pakistan before this year is out. As for the US, India may have signed the logistics agreement. And some Senators may have moved resolutions against Pakistan. But Pakistan is recognised by Washington as a key element in America's plans to disengage from Afghanistan. It's clear that America will not be a friend in need for India as China would be for Pakistan.

Such nuanced shades of grey are no problem for jingoists of the black-and-white world, be they television superheroes or Sangh parivar pundits. One of the latter made a bombastic call: "For one tooth, the complete jaw". A problem with Sangh parivar hardliners is that their admiration for Israel leads them to believe that if you attack opponents harshly enough, you will eliminate them. More than half a century of harsh, often inhuman, Israeli attacks did not eliminate Palestinian resistance. In fact battling the sadistic Israeli forces has become a people's movement in Palestine. The sudden increase in popular resistance in Kashmir in recent months has been quickly seized by Pakistan as ammunition against India in international forums.

Israel does a great many other things without anyone knowing about them, and India can learn from some of those. One of them is that spy/intelligence chiefs must not make public pronouncements. When the last chief of Mossad expressed an opinion after his retirement, his diplomatic passport was taken away by way of punishment.

Two years ago, at a public meeting, Ajit Doval went into the details of India's options against Pakistan. One was: "You do one Mumbai. You may lose Baluchistan". On independence day this year, Prime Minister Modi virtually endorsed that line. We thus gave Pakistan all it wanted to know which way we were thinking and the time to start preparing its counter strategies.

Baluchistan is no doubt a festering sore for Pakistan rulers. But how far can India go to make another Bangladesh out of it? East Bengal was contiguous with India. Baluchistan is not. What's more, it is contiguous with Iran -- and Shia Iran will have its own views on Sunni Baluchistan becoming independent as there is a large number of Baluchis in Iran's south-eastern province. And why would Iran want to take the risk of supporting Baluchis for India's sake when India actively sided with America in the sanctions against Iran and, even now, seems none too enthusiastic about joint programmes like oil pipe lines?

In this bleak scenario, Modi did well by choosing a policy of strategic restraint. In the aftermath of the Mumbai terror strike, Modi had accused the Congress Government of doing nothing and said: "Talk to Pakistan in Pakistan's language because it won't learn lessons till then". The Modi Government now must talk to Pakistan in Pakistan's language. It must do so without addressing public meetings, keeping in mind the principle: The guerilla wins when he does not lose, the army loses when it does not win.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Can there be an India with State fighting State? Language destroyed a culture in Babylon

The Tower of Babel was built, and its builders punished, for specific reasons. The Hebrew-Babylonian legend identifies Nimrod as the ruler who ordered the construction. Overly confident about his power, he disliked people thanking God for everything. He wanted them to believe that it was their own effort and courage that brought them prosperity. To stop them from fearing God, he turned himself into a tyrant so that people would fear him instead.

This is logical political theory as we can see if we leave God out of it for a moment and look at Nimrod as a political boss competing with other political bosses. He wants people not to feel beholden to other party bosses, not to feel apprehensive about any leader but himself. He presents himself as the only master worth listening to. The spirit of rivalry is dramatically highlighted in the Jewish rabbinic version of the legend according to which the builder of the Tower said, 'God has no right to choose the upper world for himself, leaving the lower world to us. So we will build us a tower that is high with an idol on top holding a sword as if it is ready to war with God'. Exactly the kind of bravado our political bosses exhibit and their fringe warriors act upon.

Of course, no political chief so challenged will take it lying down. God had once tried to correct things by creating The Great Flood and allowing the survival of only a chosen few. They had grown into a united humanity, held together by a single language. But when they became proud and tried to challenge him, God decided to punish them again. Since annihilation by floods had not taught them to become god-fearing, God tried a different approach this time. He created a confusion of tongues among them. People could no longer understand one another because they spoke in multiple languages. Lack of understanding led to disunity and mutual suspicion. Scattered by linguistic division and unable to work together, people abandoned the Tower of Babel. Babylon became a synonym for ancientness, buried in the pages of forgotten history.

Many modern towers have since arisen -- from the Eiffel Tower to Dubai's Burj Khalifa -- all of them made possible by the unity of people in the countries concerned and the popular backing their visionary leaders enjoyed. Across the world, progress has been registered only when a leader's high-minded goals were accepted as such by the people whose support was never influenced by religious, provincial or linguistic differences. This is borne out by the stand-out achievements of recent history -- from the transformation of Germany from a war wreck to Europe's most powerful economy by a handful of statesmen beginning with Konrad Adenauer, to the transformation of Kuala Lumpur from a lazy village to a world metropolis in the span of a single generation by Mahathir Mohammed.

Fifteen prime ministers, scores of chief ministers and seven decades have not helped India achieve comparable progress in any field (except space research, praise be to the scientists). In key fields we have gone backward -- public health and quality of education, for example. Epidemic corruption has no doubt been a prime reason. But let us not minimise the role played by our disunities, religious and linguistic in particular. How can India progress when there are no Indians, there are only Tamilians, Kannadigas and Malayalis; Punjabis and Haryanvis; Bengalis, Assamese, Biharis and Odiyas; when even speakers of the same language split into Telengana and Andhra Pradesh?

Can there be an India at all when 56 passenger buses are burned down near Bangalore because they belonged to a Tamil Nadu company? Or when Woodlands, a Chennai landmark for years, is hit by petrol bombs because it had Kannadiga connections? Or when vehicles with TN registration are targetted in Karnataka and those with KA number plates attacked in Tamil Nadu? Assaulting pilgrims in Rameswaram was unforgivable because pilgrims are not Kannadigas or Telugus, but pilgrims just as Tamils going to Sabarimala or Kollur Mookambika temple are not just Tamils but devotees. Pilgrims deserve respect transcending race and language.

Violence solves nothing. It only produces counter-violence. Water-sharing among neighbouring states is a serious matter, best left to subject experts to work out, not to politicians seeking temporary electoral gains. If God has no right to choose the upper world, politicians have less right to work up passions for cheap applause. Leave it to the temporal gods of the Constitution.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Aam aadmi turns into harm aadmi, then to damn aadmi. Yet another chance of clean politics gone

When Anna Hazare disowned Arvind Kejriwal, it was clear that all was not well with the Aam Aadmi Party experiment. When Kejriwal summarily dismissed his original team mates Prashant Bhushan and Yogendra Yadav, AAP's intentions and directions came under a big cloud. Then Kejriwal's chosen faithfuls began showing signs of absurdity: Minister Somnath Bharti raided and roundly attacked African women resident in Delhi; publicity-hungry court poet Kumar Biswas exposed his parochial pettiness by attacking Imam Husain, some Hindu deities and "Kali peeli" Kerala nurses at one go.

Generally speaking, the public was inclined to set aside such lapses as the stupidities of immature men who had suddenly tasted power. People wanted AAP to grow into an alternative to the established, deeply corrupted, caste- and religion-driven parties that had come to monopolise power. Even when the Central government took on the AAP government in Delhi as enemy number one, sympathy went in favour of the David being harassed by the Goliath. Lt. Governor Najeeb Jung contributed immensely to that sympathy quotient by being more loyal than the king to the BJP government.

In the early days when Delhi ministers were arrested by Central government's agencies, it was seen as vengefulness by an intolerant BJP that could not stomach an opposition party ruling Delhi. A mature leadership could have turned this in AAP's favour. Instead, its leaders began to appear in scandals.

Kumar Biswas himself was the first to have that distinction. A campaign volunteer accused him of molesting her and making "sexually coloured' remarks, and a metropolitan magistrate ordered an FIR against him. This time a minister, Sandeep Kumar, was arrested following a woman's complaint that he had raped her. Kejriwal had no alternative but to sack him. But the matter went on to become a real mess. Sandeep Kumar said his private secretary had blackmailed him (the P.S.was arrested); AAP's ranking leader Ashutosh not only backed Kumar by saying that his was a case of consensual sex but compared it with Jawaharlal Nehru's "reported affairs with many female colleagues" which did not spoil his political career; the Sunday Standard reported that Kumar had sent his pregnant wife to the US so that his child would be born a US citizen; a BJP leader said the police investigation would reveal "more dark secrets" of the AAP.

All hopes of a Kejriwal-led AAP becoming a national political force have now come to an end. As Hazare lamented, AAP has lost its moral credibility. He spoke for all when he said: "I was hoping that Arvind would set a different example for politics in India and give a different direction to the nation". That simply is not in Kejriwal. One of the most popular AAP figures, Raghav Chedda had said: "The idea of clean politics, affordable politics, volunteerism -- all these are AAP's basic ideals". Whatever happened to those ideals?

Raghav Chedda is the face of idealist Indians who joined the AAP with the best of intentions. As the party's spokesman, his sincerity matched his ability and, not surprisingly, he gathered what must be the largest fan-base among television figures. How can he now defend his morally weakened party? How can Meera Sanyal, who gave up her CEO post in the Royal Bank of Scotland to serve the country through what she thought was the only acceptable party, carry on with the party now? How can V.Balakrishnan, an Infosys leader who left his high position to join AAP, get along with a tainted party?

Two years ago, one of only four AAP candidates to win the Lok Sabha elections, comedian Bhagwant Mann was categorical when he said, "the future belongs to BJP and AAP. Congress will be in coma for at least 10-15 years". He might still say that because he is a comedian by profession. For more serious people, it will be difficult to imagine the AAP getting anywhere as it is presently constituted. People talk of the party splitting, of new leaders rising.

All are agreed that India needs to break out of the prevailing stranglehold of manipulative politics. Clearly Kejriwal is not up to it. His judgment of people is flawed. He is autocratic and surrounds himself with dubious friends. His chapter is as good as over.

Who will write a new chapter? And when? No one seems to have an answer. Meanwhile, it has been announced that Amitabh Bachchan and Aamir Khan are teaming up for a new movie called The Thugs of Hindostan. Hm...who could that be about?

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Should making friends also mean making enemies? New challenges as the non-alignment era ends

India gave up non-alignment and joined the American bloc last week -- a historical shift in the nation's ideograph. As he signed the Logistics Agreement in Washington, Defence Minister Parrikar tried to give the impression that it was a routine matter. Routine protests came from the Congress and the CPI-M politburo. It was routine news for the media, too. Yet, the implications of the policy switch are such that a whole new India may be in the making with a whole new set of problems, challenges and, yes, opportunities.

Non-alignment was an inspirational concept when it took centrestage in the 1950s. Colonialism had collapsed and several newly independent nations had emerged in Asia, Africa and Latin America. This "Third Word" was confronted by the intense cold war then going on between the US-led and the Soviet Union-led blocs. That was when Jawaharlal Nehru, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Josip Tito came up with the idea of not aligning with either bloc. It enabled many new countries to stand on their own feet without becoming the followers of one or the targets of another.

The non-alignment movement has been in limbo, a casualty of time. Nehru's India changed, Nasser's Egypt dead and Tito's Yugoslavia disappeared. The world is different with different economic compulsions, different threats, different aims. But some things don't -- and shouldn't -- change, such as the need for countries to keep good relations with other countries. A major power like India needs to develop its bilateral relations without letting shadows fall on its multilateral relations.

Parrikar said that there was no question of America setting up bases in India as a result of the Logistics Agreement. Why would America want to do such a foolish thing when the Agreement makes all Indian military bases available to it? The thrust of the Agreement was laid bare without inhibitions by American sources. Forbes magazine reported the impending pact with the headline: "China and Pakistan beware -- this week India and US sign war pact". US media in general projected the Agreement as a key part of the Obama Government's strategy to contain China. One of the facts they brought to light was that 60 percent of the US navy's surface ships are to be deployed in the "Indo-Pacific" theatre. For air and land deployment of forces, the US had to build massive bases in Iraq and Afghanistan from scratch. In eastern Asia now readymade bases and allied facilities will be available to them free. Voice of America reported a US General as saying: "We are completely integrated, with both the Indian army and our army working together down to platoon level".

That kind of integration was something earlier governments had decided to avoid. Both A.B.Vajpayee and US-loving Manmohan Singh kept the Logistics and other "foundational" agreements with the US pending precisely to avoid becoming branded as America's camp-followers in global strategy. With India becoming a facilitator of US strategy in Asia, it will be difficult for Delhi to sustain its familiar profile as a country that follows an independent foreign policy. American reports point to the state-of-the-art military technology India will now receive and say, no doubt to cheer up India, that such technology and armaments will "help India stand up to the emerging superpower, China".

Will such an attitude be good for India? Even the technology-armament scenario is not going to make India self-dependent in the near future. Lockheed Martin has offered to shift its F-16 manufacturing to India. This sounds promising if it is going to create new jobs for Indians and contribute to the Make-In-India concept. But the US is a trader, not a philanthropist. India has already signed a US $ 3 billion deal for 15 Cherokee heavy-lift helicopters and 22 Apache attack choppers. This also signifies a historic shift from Russia, hitherto the principal supplier of military ware to India.

The ultimate question is whether it is in India's interest to cut out Russia and to appear as an antagonist getting ready to confront China. India became a major international player by ensuring that it was not an appendix of any power group. India has the status and the experience to remain an influential power without alienating its neighbours. It is true that China has been less than friendly, having put all its eggs in a non-state basket like Pakistan. Does that mean that there is no scope for collaboration with China which badly needs India's market? Leadership is the art of making friends without making enemies.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Is India rising? What are the new hopes, new fears? A reporter's account makes for a readable story

There is no end to books coming out on India. On Narendra Modi alone there are already more than a dozen. Expect more. Obviously the market is good even if some books say nothing a la P.V.Narasimha Rao's two "autobiographies". Journalists, fabled as composers of "the first draft of history", often tend to take sides. When they don't, some worthwhile books come out such as Inder Malhotra's biography of Indira Gandhi. Into this category falls India Rising: Fresh Hopes, New Fears by Ravi Velloor, a Delhi journalist who went to Singapore and turned himself into an institution there.

What makes this book eminently readable is its story-telling style. Velloor's account of the 2004 tsunami is a powerful chapter. But there is no hint of the disaster in the opening paragraph which is all about his spending the morning after Christmas Day 2004 on a golf course in central New Delhi with three officers of India's admiralty. His telling of Bangalore's IT revolution starts, not with Narayana Murthy or Azim Premji, but with Arjun Kalyanpur, a radiologist who sits in his villa in Whitefield and reads scan results of a patient being examined in a Chicago hospital. Even the terrorist attack in Mumbai comes alive with the Velloor touch. "Jai Arya, executive vice president of the Bank of New York's Singapore operations and his wife Rohini were dining [at the Oberoi Trident] with Ashok Kapur and his wife Madhu. Ashok, who was my wife's cousin, was chairman of Yes Bank and had earlier led the Rabobank's Singapore operations and we were frequent visitors at his bungalow". Three paragraphs later, Ashok is dead on the hotel's stairs.

Velloor now holds an exalted position in Singapore's Straits Times, but his real strength remains the reporter's blood coursing through his veins. Operating out of Delhi in the 1980's, he was amazingly networked, his quiet and subdued nature earning the trust of his contacts. The reporter's approach helps Velloor come out with unexpected details. Dawood Gilani alias David Coleman Headley is introduced as a "6-foot-2 figure with a gigolo-like frame" who is "half Gilani, half Armani. Indeed, one of his eyes was blue, the other brown".

For those who thought that Velloor was a practitioner of soft journalism, the chapter on Shashi Tharoor would be revealing. No, there is no frontal attack, except perhaps in the grammar-defying chapter title, "Style and Scandal: Diplomatic Blunder Tharoor". It's about how Tharoor's bid for UN Secretary General's post was doomed even before it started, how Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi made a blunder by sponsoring him, and how, after he lost out, Tharoor still planned to hold on to his UN bureaucratic job. The newly elected Ban Ki Moon had to convey to him: "I'm surprised you want to stay on, Shashi". To be sure, Tharoor is one contact that will no longer be available to Velloor.

On the other hand, Velloor is overly well-disposed towards the former intelligence boss and National Security Advisor (NSA) M.K.Narayanan whose bizarre joke, "I have a dossier on you", was unsettling to a generation of Indians. He makes only a parenthetical reference to the Mumbai terror attack blemishing the intelligence chief's reputation. Actually, that attack and Rajiv Gandhi's assassination were India's biggest intelligence failures of all time -- and both happened on Narayanan's watch. Velloor's account confirms that Narayanan considered himself as the best NSA, when in fact the superior professionalism of J.N.Dixit put him in the shade. Narayanan would get into quarrels with Dixit, as he would with Home Minister Chidambaram and even Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Eventually his influence in the Gandhi household also dwindled and Manmohan banished him from Delhi by making him Governor of West Bengal. Velloor's portrait of "the confident, articulate M.K.Narayanan" looks tilted.

There is neither tilt nor ambiguity when he endorses the opinion about A.KAntony as India's "worst defence minister ever". Nor does the Singaporean in him hesitate to say that some of the strategic rivalry between India and China "perhaps lives more in Delhi's mind than in America-focussed Beijing's". As for Narendra Modi, Velloor chronicles the insecurity that has spread among many Indians and also differentiates Hindutva from Indutva (Indianness), but gives the Prime Minister the benefit of the doubt with the chapter heading, "Right Man, Wrong Party?"

Velloor does well by making the best use of his reportorial gifts; he steers clear of deep analyses, socio-economic interpretations or historical decipherments. India Rising is not a Picasso; it's a Ravi Varma, realistic, colourful, thoroughly enjoyable.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Who said India cut a sorry figure at the Olympics? No other country had VIPs winning medals

It is true that India did better in the last Olympics than in this one; just 83 athletes won six medals in London while 117 won two in Rio. But that does not mean that our great country cut a sorry figure before the world. On the contrary. No other country sent its reigning national sports minister to Rio to liven up things. The Honourable Vijay Goel and his "aggressive and rude" staff did it so well that the organisers had to warn them of possible expulsion from the arena. None of the other 206 participating countries won this distinction.

Olympics may come and Olympics may go, but Indians will remain Indians. Whether it is Commonwealth Games, Asian Games, or Olympics, the Indian tradition is to give pride of place, not to athletes, but to politicians, sports officials and sundry hangers-on, parasites, pretenders and the sons and nephews and girlfriends of VIPs. National Rifle Association President Ravinder Singh, son of Punjab's former Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh, was the star figure in Rio's parties. Abhay Singh Chautala, son of former Haryana Chief Minister, was also in Rio, overlooking the small detail that he was out of jail on bail. Chaperoning him was Olympics President N.Ramachandran who, as shooter Abhinav Bindra revealed, never met any Indian athlete in Rio. Haryana's own sports minister, Anil Vij, went to Rio to "cheer the athletes", but correspondents on the scene said he spent his time on the beaches cheering the locals.

This negative culture is reinforced by the polices and attitudes of government and various sports organisations. Arun Jaitley, a sports enthusiast (if cricket can be considered a sport and not a commercial activity), allotted Rs 1552 crore to sports in his last budget. This was Rs 50 crore more than his previous budget's allocation. The small island nation of Jamaica allotted to sports the equivalent of Rs 3075 crore in 2012 (by the exchange rate of that time). Jamaica is the land of Usain Bolt, India is the land of Shobha De.

It is an all-time shame of India that the various associations that control sports are hellholes of intrigue and infighting. Politicians are known to head them for decades at a stretch. Take boxing. The Indian Boxing Federation was banned by the International Boxing Federation in 2013 for manipulating elections. A new organisation took over, named Boxing India. This was suspended by the international body following an internal war that led to even impeachment.

In a country like India, where government intervention is needed even to construct toilets, sports cannot perhaps progress without governmental assistance. But it has to be assistance provided by sports people for sports people. We need not go to the extent China does -- take away little boys and girls from their families and develop them rigorously, even cruelly, as winning machines. But there is something to learn from other countries. Britain, through government and the National Lottery, provides about £ 700 million for programmes that help Olympic athletes. The Canadian Government earmarks about $ 150 million a year for Olympics. Senior athletes get monthly stipends. In West Australia, the Government runs an Athlete Travel Subsidy Scheme to help young athletes with travel and accommodation at sports training centres. In the US there is no direct government involvement, but there are organisations that provide various types of assistance to athletes ranging from training and healthcare costs to air fare and lodging during the games.

Our government has a poor record in these matters. What is allotted seldom reaches the athletes. Sprinter Dutee Chand endured a 36-hour flight to Rio in economy class while officials lounged in business class. Deepa Karmakar's physiotherapist was not allowed to travel with her; the Sports Authority of India said that would be "wasteful". When she qualified for finals, the therapist was rushed to Rio.

The one hopeful sign in India is that private companies have started playing a role. Steeplechase runner Lalita Babar's is a typical case. Special steeplechase spikes costs Rs 10,000, lasts only one month, and has to be imported. Government agencies did not help. Anglian Medal Hunt, a Delhi-based private company, came to her aid. JSW Sports helped O.P.Jaisha among others.

Rio has proved that India has athletes talented and gritty enough to win Olympic golds. If only the sporting climate in the country were a little more helpful, the picture could change overnight. In the prevailing climate, Sakshi Malik and P.V.Sindhu are miracles, pure gold. May their tribe increase.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

World War 3 over India's most polarising animal? The Prime Minister can win it. And he must

Late, but when it finally came, the Prime Minister's denunciation of violence and hatemongering in the name of the cow was unambiguous. In normal circumstances, that should have put an end to the atrocities being committed by self-styled gau rakshaks. But we do not live in circumstances that can be called normal. Ideologues in the Prime Minister's own camp have challenged him while the fanatic fringe has turned defiant. This has not happened before, and it bodes ill for the country.

What a pity that the gentle cow is at the centre of this confrontation. The cow deserves a supra-religious, non-controversial position because it plays a critical role in human well-being. The genius of India's ancient rishis led to the concept of giving religious sanctity to animals and plants that were indispensable to the progress of mankind. Many of them became objects of "worship" -- the banyan, the peepul, the tulsi, the asoka, the coconut, the jasmine and of course the cow. By teaching us to revere these, our forefathers ensured our health and happiness. In other words, they used religion in the most constructive way possible. This also reinforces the theory that Hinduism was not a religion initially, but a way of principled life, sanatana dharma.

Take a casual look at some of the plants and animals we are encouraged to worship. The banyan's leaves give relief to joint pains, the latex helps cure gum infection and conjunctivitis, the roots fight diarrhoea and pimples, the bark is used to cure skin diseases and mouth ulcers. The peepul emits oxygen. The asoka tree's leaves, stems and roots are helpful in treating menstrual and related problems of women. The tulsi is a great cleansing agent and helps fight sore throat, respiratory ailments and indigestion. The coconut is a tree every part of which is useful to mankind.

If people were simply told of such medicinal benefits, the response would have been half-hearted at best; such is human psychology. But the same psychology takes a somersault when the exhortation is tied to religion. So the banyan and the peepul found positions of eminence in the epics and the puranas. The auspiciousness of an occasion is not complete without breaking a coconut, the tulsi leaf is mandatory in the worship of Vishnu. And Sita sat under the asoka tree in Lanka.

The cow has a stand-out position in this narrative, with Sri Krishna himself becoming Gopala. Like the banyan and the coconut tree, everything associated with the cow is essential to human beings. Not just milk and ghee and paneer; cowdung is valuable as fuel and as fertiliser; walls plastered with mud-cowdung mix provide natural insulation; cow products are part of the science of ayurveda. The popularisation through religion of the essentials of healthy living must have been a factor in Indian civilisation outlasting most other civilisations such as the Mayan, the Babylonian and the Greek.

Today, however, the wisdom of the sages has given way to the brashness of the dogmatists. Cow protection has come to mean lynchings and ceremonial thrashing of minorities. The televised brutalisation of dalits in Gujarat went viral at the cost of the ruling dispensation. The cow has emerged as India's "most polarising animal," as the BBC once put it.

The atrocities are said to be motivated by votebank politics. In fact they may hurt the BJP's electoral prospects. Undaunted, the extremists have turned against Narendra Modi. Some right-wing groups even warned of "World War 3" if Modi's promise of strict action was implemented. The Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha said it would hold "a buddhi shuddhi yagya across the country to give better sense to the Prime Minister". Where were these crusaders until two years ago? It was Modi's victory that gave the zealots the courage to beat and kill people they disapproved.

Modi can ignore their open challenge only at the risk of diminishing himself. It is true that law and order is a state subject. But Modi has a voice, and an impact, that no state government can ignore. He can set an example by making his handpicked new Chief Minister of Gujarat punish the men who thrashed dalits before cameras. Modi was correct in saying that frauds were posing as cow lovers. There are protection rackets and business intrigues behind the cow these days. They need to be crushed. Popular opinion will be with the Prime Minister if he uses his influence to implement the principles he outlined. He can make World War 3 glorious.

Monday, August 8, 2016

A new kind of lawyers want a new kind of rights: The right to abuse judges, beat up reporters

Imagine a robed lawyer barging into an open court room, exhorting his colleagues to support an ongoing boycott campaign against judges, then telling the bench: "If you have guts, take action against me". Well, you don't have to imagine. It actually happened in the Madurai branch of the Madras High Court not long ago.

In Delhi's Patiala court compound, the world watched in amazement as lawyers attacked student leaders, policemen and journalists. Senior lawyers appointed by the Supreme Court to look into the matter were also attacked. The violent lawyers were later seen boasting about their violence.

Bangalore still shudders with the memory of lawyers fighting pitched battles against policemen, press reporters and sundry onlookers. A judge was among some 90 people who were injured when the lawyers hurled chairs, smashed vehicles, set a police post on fire, threw water-bottles and bricks and helmets at whoever came within throwing range.

Across Kerala last month lawyers have been gunning for journalists. There were fisticuffs and shouting of unprintable slogans. Police kept a safe distance. Judges made little effort to assert their overriding powers in court premises, even when the Media Room in the High Court building was locked up under lawyer pressure.

These are unparalleled happenings in the history of India, of any democracy for that matter. Some of the world's most learned and respected lawyers are Indian. Think of Palkhiwala, think of Parasaran. This tradition of eminence, scholarship and integrity is being eroded -- erased? -- by a callous bunch of lawyers who resort to rowdyism to push private agendas. In Delhi, the agenda was cheap politics. In Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala, it is cheap ego.

The prolonged war of attrition between the Bench and the Bar in the Madras High Court forced a judge to warn that dispensation of justice would be difficult if "shouting slogans against judges and making abusive comments in open court" continued. In May this year the state amended the Advocates Act to debar lawyers found guilty of offences such as "browbeating and/or abusing" a judge. The lawyers saw this as another provocation and intensified their fight saying "we cannot practise without fear". At one stage judges asked for special CISF protection for courts.

Curiously, lawyer violence in Karnataka and Kerala was sparked by anger against the police, then turned against reporters. A lawyer in Bangalore was stopped by the police for riding pillion with three others on a bike. The association of lawyers took up cudgels against the police over this action, called for a strike which created traffic chaos in some parts of the city. The media reported this. Whereupon the lawyers turned against the media.

Kerala events unfolded in copycat style. A government lawyer took liberties with a young woman on a public road and, following the woman's complaint, the police arrested him. The lawyers objected. The media reported this, including some details of the woman's complaint. Whereupon the irate lawyers turned against the media with a fury that took everyone in the state by surprise.

In Kerala of course everything is mixed up with politics. A big lawyer, associated with the ruling CPM leaders, was appointed advisor to the Chief Minister. That did not prevent him from appearing in a case against the Government to defend a notorious lottery operator. Public criticism forced the big lawyer to decline the advisor post. The media reported all this, making the big lawyer turn hostile to the media. The general feeling that the big lawyer's influence was a factor in the attacks against journalists was reinforced by comments made by his friend the Chief Minister at a press meet. Asked about the beating up of reporters, he said: "Don't go there to beat up or be beaten up". He then laughed at his own joke.

That being the standard of jokes and ethics in our country, the only way to ensure smooth functioning of courts, newspapers and police stations is to recognise the new fundamental rights of lawyers: The right to abuse judges in open court; the right to attack accused being produced in court; the right to beat up opponents of the political party the lawyers support; the right to ride illegally, and dangerously, overloaded bikes; the right to grab any woman walking along the road; to sum up a whole new philosophy of civilisation -- the right of lawyers to break the law.

Honest lawyers, proud of their profession, must be crying in silence. The rest of India cries with them.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Inspiring the young to learn, to dream, to achieve; why Kalam is still a driving force in India

The way the anniversary of A.P.J.Abdul Kalam's death was observed in the country was revealing. It was naam-ke-wastay at establishmentarian levels. Media coverage was mostly of the beaten-path style; no editorials. No public meetings either. The Government satisfied itself with tokenisms -- a formal statement by the Prime Minister that Kalam was irreplaceable, and the unveiling of a long-delayed statue at Rameswaram where the burial ground had remained neglected to the chagrin of the family and the locals. A big government advertisement announcing the foundation-laying ceremony of the Kalam National Memorial had the Prime Minister's picture towering above all else.

The lukewarm attitude at official levels was in sharp contrast to the spontaneous enthusiasm at the level of ordinary people. It was a touching reiteration of Kalam's title as the People's President. That students were in the forefront of these expressions of love and admiration would have pleased the eternal teacher in Kalam. In a Chennai school, children created a large floral picture of their hero, then stood around his head forming a halo of tribute. In a school in Malabar children spent time reading Kalam's words, then went out to tend plants and trees which, he had told them, were precious. Students in Coimbatore planted a lakh of saplings. Another group announced a competition for school students to display their inventions. A sand artist livened up a beach in Puri with spectacular portraits of the Bharat Ratna. At the Indian Institute of Technology in Shillong, where Kalam died in the middle of a speech, students planted trees in his memory and announced a series of lectures on how to make the world a better place.

Kalam inspired the youth of India in ways no other leader did. He never had the glamour of a Jawaharlal Nehru or the oratorical gifts of a Vajpayee. His English was heavily accented. But those very weaknesses turned out to be his strengths. His genuineness shone through every word and gesture of his. His faith in young people energised the young and the old alike. The directness of his simple words hit home. Who would not be stirred to high endeavour when Kalam, his eyes sparking, tells his listeners: You have to dream before your dreams come true. A 2011 movie about a poor Rajasthani boy who struggled to study was titled, I am Kalam.

With one or two exceptions, the Presidents of India were great souls who brought honour to the country. Some like S.Radhakrishnan and Zakir Hussain, were internationally respected scholars. Two were remarkable for their ordinariness, yet they were the ones who conquered the hearts of the people -- K.R.Narayanan and Abdul Kalam. Interestingly, those were also the Presidents the political system got rid of as fast as it could.

Narayanan was so punctilious that he said and did things that went against the positions held by the Government in power. This and his view that there was government-level conspiracy behind the Gujarat riots of 2002 turned the BJP-led NDA Government against him. Narayanan retired after his first term. Kalam's adherence to the rule book made the Sonia Gandhi establishment turn against him. So he, too, became a one-term President. But both men carved for themselves positions in public imagination and in the history books that others have not matched. Narayanan, for example, was the first President who insisted on exercising his vote as a citizen. Kalam wrote more than a dozen inspirational books, 22 poems and four songs. In his 70s, he was nominated twice for the MTV youth icon.

In the Indian context, perhaps Kalam's most significant achievement was that he exposed the meaninglessness of religious identifications. He bore a 24-carat Muslim name and did his namaz. But he was also a vegetarian, read the Bhagvad Gita, played the rudra veena and listened to Carnatic devotional songs every day. He was an Indian in the true sense of that term. And, with all his traditionalism, a very modernistic rock star Indian; how else could we explain that lovingly tended pop-culture hairstyle?

It was no less an achievement that in the political jungle of Delhi, sitting in the citadel of Rashtrapathi Bhavan, he remained defiantly a-political. In fact, he was dreaded by the politicians for they could not contain him within their political lines. He lived true to the message he conveyed to his young listeners: "Look at the sky. We are not alone. The whole universe is friendly to us".

This was a man who belonged to the stars.